In an ideal world, Amy Berg’s daring exposé “An Open Secret” will launch uncomfortable conversations and start an intelligent, long-overdue dialogue about sexual abuse in Hollywood. The media buzz ahead of its premiere means it has already started to achieve those goals, which may explain why the documentary is having a tough time finding distribution. But the future of the conversation is a different story. As DOC NYC co-founder Thom Powers put it at the movie’s premiere on Friday, a wall of silence has been erected around long-circulating molestations charges in Hollywood, and Berg’s film acts as a sledgehammer.
This year, the oft-ignored reality of sexual abuse in Hollywood briefly took center stage in the news: Michael Egan, a 30-something man who was once an aspiring actor, accused director Bryan Singer, veteran TV exec Garth Ancier, former Disney exec David Neuman, and producer Gary Goddard of sexual abuse. The four men denied the charges and the case was dropped in August when certain inconsistencies arose in Egan’s testimonies. Egan didn’t file his claim until after he filmed his scenes for “An Open Secret.” According to Berg, he met with a faulty lawyer and made a poor decision regarding the suits.
Egan plays a vital part in the film’s central story: In the nineties, he brought his friend Mark to a party at the home of Mark Collins-Rector, the progenitor of Den, an early internet entertainment site aimed at young people. Collins-Rector and his cohort threw licentious pool parties, which were notorious in Hollywood but largely unheard of by the general public. Replete with “twinks” — skinny young boys, “rail-thin” as described by Egan — their wanton gatherings were, by all accounts, modern bacchanals. These starry-eyed boys who wanted to be the next Johnny Depp were enthralled by the promise of allure, and it often ruined their lives.
Mark’s tragic case is used as a kind of peg around which Berg wreathes a horrifying story about Hollywood’s history of ignoring these allegations. She layers several intimate stories that share uncannily similar, equally disquieting details. Shooting in the cinematic 2.35 ratio — unusual for a documentary on such a sensitive topic — Berg sustains a solemn atmosphere and laces some gorgeous visual motifs throughout: enraged red taillights snaking through the Los Angeles night; gauzy streams of light spilling out of projectors; luminous mansions and glistening, sinuous pools the color of azure sky.
More than highlighting victimhood, Berg’s film gives her subjects a platform without exploiting them. As the film makes painfully clear, it’s unfathomably difficult to come forward in this kind of situation, and despite copious accusations and a considerable number of young boys who have no reason to lie about such atrocities, they’ve been frequently silenced or ignored by the media.
The burgeoning awareness of sexual abuse in Hollywood was engendered by Corey Feldman, who several years ago confessed that he and Corey Haim had been molested multiple times. “Pedophilia has always been the biggest problem in Hollywood, and it will always be the biggest problem,” he says in the documentary. “They’re everywhere.”
Other cases mentioned include those of Marty Weiss, who was by all accounts a great manager for child actors — and also a proficient sexual predator, who plead no contest in 2012 to two counts of performing lewd acts on children (he was charged with eight felony counts of molestation and served six months in jail). Then there’s Bob Villard, a former talent agent whose clients included Leonardo DiCaprio, sold pictures of young boys on the internet and continues to work freely. Michael Harrah, another suspect who was interviewed extensively for the film, later responded to Berg via The Hollywood Reporter thusly: “It’s hard to respond to anything that is so nebulous.”
But the only thing nebulous about Berg’s film is the justification touted by its detractors. Vilifying the victims for raising questions that have been rendered murky by time has proven to be a sadly effective tactic. The predators, the film explains, “groom” their victims by slowly, meticulously, and systematically luring them in and seducing their families, earning trust. They care, or rather they seem to care about the kids, showering them with presents and opening doors that are otherwise locked.
“An Open Secret” isn’t perfectly executed. At times Berg undermines her narrative by rendering some genuinely devastating moments with heavy-handed or manipulative techniques, such as a horrid use of a song called “Call to Arms” that couldn’t be any hammier; she also stumbles with clumsy reenactments and some arbitrary extreme close-ups of her subjects that distract rather than draw us in. She doesn’t need these gimmicks, and the film occasionally stutters when Berg’s filmmaking instincts intrude on the movie’s quest for the truth. But the power of her subjects’ perseverance is too strong to be deterred by occasional miscalculated formalism.
Nevertheless, “An Open Secret” is an incisive and utterly unflinching look at a subject too rarely scrutinized. In its mission and its careful structure, it approaches the sad, sordid history of sexual abuse in Hollywood–and the various cover-ups and under-the-rug sweep-jobs performed so deftly by execs and lawyers–with steadfast dedication. Regardless of your opinion on the Singer case, you have to admire Berg’s commitment to the topic. For any filmmaker to take on wealthy and powerful Hollywood marquee names represents a tough proposition, but Berg tackles the topic with a courageous stance that’s infectious.
“An Open Secret” premiered on Friday at DOC NYC. It is currently seeking distribution.